It can be up to four weeks before patients know whether the entire tumour was removed during cancer surgery. However, a new team of scientists from Jena have developed a diagnostic procedure that could revolutionise this field.

Using laser light, the researchers can make cancerous tissue visible. This provides the surgical team with real-time information to reliably identify tumours and their margins to better determine how much tissue needs to be cut away.

This is made possible by a compact microscope developed by a team from the Leibniz Institute of Photonic Technology (IPHT), Friedrich Schiller University, the University Hospital and the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering in Jena. The device combines three imaging techniques and uses tissue samples to generate spatially high-resolution images of the tissue structure during surgery. Software makes patterns and molecular details visible and processes them through the use artificial intelligence. This provides faster and more reliable results than the current standard procedure.

The optical method, for which the Jena scientists were awarded the renowned Kaiser Friedrich Prize in 2018, helps to prevent patients from needing to have another operation, which significantly improves their chances of recovery. Professor Jürgen Popp, scientific director of Leibniz IPHT, who was also involved in researching the laser rapid test, predicts that the compact microscope could be within clinics in Germany within five years, providing considerable cost savings.

Researchers are also keen to take this forward in their future work. They are currently developing a solution that would enable them to use the unique properties of light to detect tumours inside the body at an early stage and remove them immediately. This requires flexible endoscopes as such novel methods no longer work with rigid optics.

“Our vision is to use light not only to identify the tumour, but to remove it immediately,” says Jürgen Popp, scientific director of Leibniz IPHT. “This would eliminate the need for physicians to cut with a scalpel and would enable them to ablate the tumour layer by layer using light in order to remove the tumour from the patient completely.”